Having horses in the mountains might sound like fun but after my experiences with them for ten years, I can tell you it is anything but fun. I know Brent, Dan and our wranglers have their own favorite horse stories but I don’t have room for all of them so here are a few of my favorites about my love/hate relationship with our horses.
In my younger years growing up in West Virginia I always wanted a horse. I lived in a small town by today’s standards but I guess I was more of a city boy. Most of my relatives lived out of town, some on small farms. I loved visiting their farms where I spent most of my time exploring. Both of my grandfathers owned horses that they used to plow their gardens. They were work horses but we could still ride them. As soon as I got back home, I would start bugging my dad about getting me a horse. He would always tell me they were too expensive, too much work and that we had no place to keep one. Little did I know that he knew exactly what he was talking about.
Fast forward thirty years to 1984. I finally got my horse when Brent and I formed AAA Alaskan Outfitter’s. Five horses to be exact. Those five horses came with our purchase of the Wrangell Mountain area. If you have read my story “AAA Alaskan Outfitters Wrangell Mountain Area,” you know how I broke my finger when Brent and I went to purchase six new horses and about the rodeo with “Red Pepper” bucking me off. Not a good start for me with horses but I still wanted to be a cowboy and couldn’t wait to hunt with them.
Brent ended up trailing the newly purchased horses from the gold mining town of McCarthy across two glacier rivers and over two 5000 foot ridges to our base camp at Bryson Bar. He covered over 40 scale miles of uncut trail. That was quite a feat for someone with no horse experience. My first trip with the horses was taking them back over Mac Coll Ridge with my daughter Michelle to Big Bend Lakes. Brent and I guided our first two sheep hunters for AAA from there.
I did a little trail cutting around Big Bend Lakes and cut a trail toward the Canyon Creek Glacier before season. That actually went pretty well. I was with our wrangler Troy Smith. He was a young man in his early twenties with lots of horse experience for his age. He also helped Brent bring the horses in from McCarthy. I learned a lot from Troy during his time with us.
Troy used the horses to drop my first sheep hunter, Bob Gourley, from Tucson, AZ, and me off at what we later called “swamp camp” in the Canyon Creek valley. Bob and I then packed into Canyon Creek Glacier where he harvested a beautiful 39” ram. We packed out and met Troy back at swamp camp and rode the horses back to Big Bend Lakes. During that same time period Brent, on his own with his client Mike Dobransky from Anchorage, rode a couple of the horses while leading two pack horses and scored with a super 40” ram. During those hunts we only had a few minor problems with the horses. I thought, now this isn’t bad.
My second sheep hunter, Kurt Jaeger from Liechtenstein, wrangler Troy Smith and I headed back to Canyon Creek to hunt the glacier. We decided to ride the horses about 1500 feet up above Canyon Creek and camp there. It saved on the climbing plus it was about a mile and a half closer to the glacier. When I packed out from the glacier on the previous hunt, I noticed a good plateau to use as a camp. There was lots of grass for the horses to feed on while we were hunting. I decided to take Troy in with Kurt and me to teach him some basics about sheep hunting. The following day we packed into the glacier valley. We stayed there and hunted for three days. We spotted the large ram that I had seen with Bob Gourley’s ram. It was at least 40 inches but it stayed high and then disappeared on day three. I decided that we needed to go back to where we had left the horses so we could check out the other side of Canyon Creek and maybe even Young Creek. As we came over the ridge above the plateau the horses spotted us and immediately took off down the mountain. We had used hobbles on all of them but that didn’t stop them from running. I had never seen a horse run with hobbles before, but I learned that day that once they got used to them they weren’t much of a problem. After back packing in sheep country for three days this definitely wasn’t what I wanted to see. We went down to the tent and dropped our packs, rested for a little bit and then Troy and I grabbed two halter ropes and started chasing the horses. Those hobbled horses could run faster than us up hill and on level ground. The way we finally caught them was, we got above them, rested and then chased them downhill. Once we caught two, the others gave up. That night we left two tied so we didn’t have to go into chase mode the next morning.
We got up early and had breakfast. I glassed the other side of Canyon Creek and spotted four rams feeding up to the ridge between Canyon Creek and Young Creek. I decided we would ride down the mountain, cross the creek and ride up the other side about 1200 feet. By the time we got there the rams had fed over the ridge into the head of Young Creek. We stopped at a good place to leave the horses which had lots of good grass for feed. Since we didn’t know how long we would be gone and to be fair to the horses we took their saddles and bridles off and hobbled their front feet. We took off and that afternoon found twenty-two rams together two ridges over. Kurt had some kind of misfire with his set trigger on his Ruger No. 1 single shot rifle and the sheep got away. It was about six that evening when we got back to the saddles. I say saddles because all the horses had hobbled down the mountain and had crossed the creek and were feeding on the other side. To say that I was fuming mad would be an understatement. I don’t remember why I ended up going after them but I did. I grabbed a bridle and down the hill I went. It was a beautiful sunny day so the glacier fed creek was up and roaring. If you take a look at AAA’s hunting video on my site, you will see what crossing the creek looks like. In the video I had to use a staff for support to cross. I took my pants off and made it across the mid-thigh high creek and caught Blackie the horse that I had ridden. I used the bridle and rode him bare back up the mountain. Riding a horse up a mountain bareback is no fun. The other horses followed behind. Once up the mountain we saddled and loaded all the horses. We rode back down the mountain, crossed the creek and rode 1500 feet back up to camp. At that point I agreed with my dad that horses are way too much trouble and I didn’t want them anymore. The next day we rode back to Big Bend Lakes, resupplied and headed to Young Creek. The following morning we got back on the sheep that we spooked two days before and Kurt made a great 200 yard shot and now has a heavy 37 ½ ” trophy ram. We headed back to the cabins for a German celebration toasting the animal, hunter and guide. Brent’s hunter took a 38 ½” ram on the fourth day so we were now four for four. Brent had an incident where the horses got loose and went all the way back to camp so they ended up walking back.
I recovered from all of the extra work caused by our horses but I was still ready to give them away. My next hunter was Bryan Kettel from Anchorage. He was on a moose hunt and after twenty-two days in the field we had yet to see a bull moose. When he arrived we told him he may be upgraded to a sheep hunt at no additional cost since we hadn’t seen a moose. Being a very positive person, he told us we should just wait and see if a moose shows up. Next morning, opening day of moose season, we spotted a big bull moose across the lake. That was an answer to prayer. We packed up the horses and rode around the lake to within four hundred yards of the moose. The brush was really thick but I was able to climb part way up a small tree and saw the moose out close to 300 yards. He got in the open and Bryan put him down, a beautiful 62 1/2 incher. After skinning and quartering the moose we loaded him on the pack horses. I loved that part of hunting with horses, but still felt they were just too much work. The brush, the swamps, the rodeos, riding with climbing boots with a pack on your back and just dealing with the horses in general just wasn’t enjoyable.
Brent and I continued the season with two more sheep hunters and five goat hunters. We ended the season with a 100% success rate. After a long productive first season, as we pulled the shoes from the horses’ hoofs and released them into the wild, I was relieved but also a little sad. They would run with bison and moose fending for themselves and we would see them again next fall. After I arrived home it took two or three weeks before my knees quit hurting. I was so glad I didn’t have a bear season that year.
During the winter we started looking for a “super cub”. Paul Claus had done some flying for us in the previous season and we knew we could count on him for support but we needed our own cub. Once we got our cub we decided that Brent and Dan Schwarzer, a friend and guide that helped us for two weeks our first season, would mainly hunt with the horses and I would fly support and set up camps with the cub. Dan had grown up on a ranch in Oregon so he had a great deal of horse experience. Actually both Brent and Dan were better with the horses than I was. I would rather work with a 160 horse engine any day. Dan become our partner in ’86.
Sometime in late April Queenie dropped her foal. Right out in the snow on the river bed. To me that was amazing. It was a beautiful little “filly.” We named her Princess and that she was. She got her way with all the other horses. It was fun to watch her grow up. We had one major problem however; we could never wean her because we could never separate her from her momma long enough. So at three years old, being the same size as her mother, she would still try to nurse. It really looked weird. We never rode her and only packed her when she was three. Princess died, while packing gear, that year of an apparent heart attack, as stated by our client at the time who was a heart surgeon. He was there when it happened. It was really sad because she was a super nice horse.
In ’85 we hired George Lockwood as our wrangler. He was great with the horses and had way more experience with them than our previous wrangler. George worked for AAA the next five years. A few of our horses had passed on, so in ’87 George and his dad trailed five new horses into Bryson Bar. Then in ’91 we had five more horses flown into the Claus family’s homestead in a “Skyvan.” It took two loads but was way easier on everyone including the horses. It cost us $1,000 per horse for the flight.
A good wrangler was really important and one of his duties was to shoe the horses. Most of the horses were easy to shoe but we had a problem with “Pepper.” You may remember “Pepper” as “Hot Pepper” the horse that threw me the first time I tried to ride him. He wouldn’t let anyone pick up his feet. We tried what they call “twitching his nose” which didn’t work so we threw him down and three of us held his head down with a blindfold over his eyes. We got at least two shoes on him. The next year we gave him a shot of Rompan and within seconds he hit the dirt. We thought maybe we had killed him but about an hour after he was shoed, he finally got up. Fantastic!! However, the following year the shot only made him a little drowsy so we had to throw him again. After that he just went bare hoofing. We decided it was just too much work for everyone.
Brent and Dan continued to use the horses several more years. After we found enough good places to land the cub in sheep country, we found that was the best way to set up the camps. We used the horses mainly for moose and on some goat hunts. The last time that I used the horses was in ’87 when my client Greg Hedgis, from Brooklyn, Ohio, killed a fantastic 64”moose. The horses were great for moose hunts.
We sold the horses in ’94 to Rod Hardy who rode them out. I was glad to see them go and only missed the thought of having them around.
My most memorable and enjoyable ride was when Brent and I took them back over Mac Coll Ridge to Bryson Bar our first season. Once we made it to the Chitina River we cut the pack horses loose and dropped the reins and let them gallop all the way back to the cabin at Bryson Bar. The dust was flying, the breeze was blowing in our faces and we were truly feeling like cowboys!